Alistair Begg

Nicodemus in the Night — Extraordinary Encounters with Jesus

Scripture makes perfectly plain that even upright, sincere, religious individuals—a group to which Nicodemus would have belonged—are without hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2:12) if they are not born again. The religious and the irreligious are under the same indictment: devoid of spiritual life, born in transgression, and unable to rectify their predicament (Eph. 2:1–3). Such individuals need regeneration, not information; they require spiritual transformation, not renovation. The same was true for Nicodemus.

Commenting on Jesus’ ministry, Sinclair Ferguson says, “The pulse beat of God’s heart has an evangelistic rhythm.”1 Jesus even identified His mission in terms of evangelism: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
Jesus had numerous extraordinary encounters throughout the Gospels. In Mark 2, He forgave a paralytic’s sins and restored his ability to walk. In John 4, He encountered a religious nobody who, in the middle of the day, asked for a drink and found living water. And a chapter earlier, in John 3, Jesus encountered a religious somebody named Nicodemus.
“A man of the Pharisees,” this high member of the religious establishment approached the Lord under cover of darkness (v. 1). In the conversation that followed, Jesus stressed the insufficiency of superficial belief and the necessity of the new birth. From this exchange that occurred over two millennia ago, we can learn a great deal about God’s relationship to man—and about what God requires of us.
The Opening Gambit
Nicodemus had presumably heard enough of Jesus to recognize that He was “a teacher come from God” (John 3:2). Yet while this opening statement was pretty good, it’s a far cry from proclaiming Jesus to be the Promised One. We might wonder: What led Nicodemus to Jesus by night on this occasion? Alfred Edersheim suggests one possibility:
It must have been a mighty power of conviction, to break down prejudice so far as to lead this old Sanhedrist to acknowledge a Galilean, untrained in the Schools, as a Teacher come from God, and to repair to Him for direction on, perhaps, the most delicate and important point in Jewish theology.2
If Edersheim is right, that it was “a mighty power of conviction” that guided Nicodemus to Christ, then we might say that the real darkness surrounding the events in John 3 was a moral darkness. Nicodemus’s own night was blacker than the cover of darkness under which he came. Unknown to him, he approached no ordinary Galilean carpenter. He was in the presence of “the true light, which gives light to everyone” (John 1:9).
Scripture makes perfectly plain that even upright, sincere, religious individuals—a group to which Nicodemus would have belonged—are without hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2:12) if they are not born again. The religious and the irreligious are under the same indictment: devoid of spiritual life, born in transgression, and unable to rectify their predicament (Eph. 2:1–3). Such individuals need regeneration, not information; they require spiritual transformation, not renovation. The same was true for Nicodemus.
A Striking Response
As a good Jew, Nicodemus was no doubt acquainted with the kingdom of God. You can probably imagine, then, how much Jesus’ response would have startled the Pharisee: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
In Jewish thought, the kingdom of God was to be inaugurated at the end of the age. Entry into the kingdom was guaranteed, they believed, so long as one was a good Jew. But Jesus wasn’t talking here about the kingdom in its future dimension.
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The Neglected Task of Persuasive Preaching

With both the challenges and prerequisites to preaching persuasively in mind, we would do well to heed a biblical example. The apostle Paul was not merely a theoretician when it came to preaching; he was a practitioner—and we see his philosophy of preaching, so to speak, tested in Acts 25:23–26:32, as he is on trial before King Agrippa. For what was Paul on trial? In short, it was on account of the Gospel. “We have found [Paul] a plague,” the Jewish elders reported, “one who stirs up riots among all the Jews” (Acts 24:5). The implication is clear: faithful Gospel preaching is unsettling to many. Paul is proof that preaching isn’t popular with everyone. So confident was Paul in the Gospel, though, that he appealed to defend it before the highest authority in Rome: Caesar (Acts 25:12). 

Preaching isn’t popular. W. E. Sangster, writing in mid-twentieth-century Britain, remarked, “Preaching is in the shadows. The world does not believe in it.”1 If he were around today, he might have broadened his observation to include not only secular society but the church also.
When we speak of preaching, we don’t mean some well-intentioned individual addressing his audience with a certain degree of enthusiasm. We’re talking about a Spirit-filled, Bible-based, Christ-exalting delivery of the Scripture through a God-appointed ambassador. Regrettably, the appetite for this kind of preaching is dwindling. And if baseline biblical preaching is increasingly unpopular, persuasive biblical preaching is even more so. No preaching is more unpopular than that which addresses men and women’s stubborn wills, calling them to repentance and faith in Jesus.
Yet while unpopular, persuasive preaching is exactly the kind of work to which God calls faithful preachers. The apostolic pattern pushes us to swim against the cultural current, urging lost people to repent and believe the Gospel (Acts 18:4; 28:23; 2 Tim. 4:3–5).
In 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul outlines the call to persuasive preaching: “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Appeal. Implore. Be reconciled. This is the vocabulary of Christ’s embassy. Our task is neither easy nor comfortable. In fact, at least three challenges will accompany the “message of reconciliation”(2 Cor. 5:19) to which we are appointed as stewards.
The Challenges of Persuasive Preaching
The first set of challenges are personal in nature. Really, the challenges preachers face will always be personal, for when we preach, we stand between a holy God and finite men and women. Our sense of natural inhibition is to be expected. It’s no surprise, then, that Paul refers to Gospel ministers as “jars of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7), fragile vessels in whom resides the priceless good news of Jesus.
This sense of inadequacy might reveal itself further in a tendency toward self-preservation. That is, in the spirit of following cultural trends or saving face, we might be at times unwilling to bring the Word’s demands to bear on our listeners. Tragically, the very message lost people need is that which many of us are guilty of altering.
Hear Charles Spurgeon’s plea for powerful, Gospel-focused preaching:
The Gospel is preached in the ears of all; it only comes with power to some. The power that is in the Gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher, otherwise men would be converters of souls. Nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning, otherwise it would consist in the wisdom of man. … We might preach till our tongues rotted, till we should exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless there were the mysterious power of the Holy Ghost going with it, changing the will of man. O sirs! we might as well preach to stone walls as to preach to humanity unless the Holy Ghost be with the Word, to give it power to convert the soul.2
There are also cultural challenges in preaching. In the late twentieth century, Neil Postman wrote a book titled Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he asserted, “The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment.”3 What is true of modern education is also true for much of today’s preaching. Where are the calls to think carefully upon, drink deeply from, and respond sober-mindedly to God’s Word as it’s taught from the pulpit? The cultural demand for entertainment has in many places eclipsed the distinguishing marks of true, persuasive preaching.
Finally, ministers encounter theological challenges in their task. Preaching is theological work. But we must see to it that our doctrinal frameworks are shaped by the whole of biblical truth rather than shaping our interpretation of Scripture. For example, the necessity for repentance does not undercut God’s sovereignty in salvation (Acts 17:30), nor is grace in our justification contrary to effort in our sanctification (Phil. 2:12–13). As we formulate our systematic theology, we would do well to ask, “How does this doctrine work in Jesus’ ministry?” The teachings of our Lord in the Gospels are like guardrails for our preaching, keeping us from veering off the beaten path of truth.
The Basics of Persuasive Preaching
For each of the three challenges to our preaching there is a biblical solution. In fact, Paul addresses these personal, cultural, and theological challenges in 2 Corinthians 5:19–21.
The remedy to theological confusion, Paul asserts, is Gospel clarity: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19).
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Could Paul Have Been Ashamed of the Gospel?

The Gospel is not something for us to be ashamed of, whatever shame the world may heap upon it, because by faith we can see God’s power at work in it to bring new birth and sanctification. Many today will try to dress up the Gospel in modern thinking to suit contemporary tastes. But we don’t need to exercise all our energy trying to create the right kind of context for the Gospel or trying to make the Gospel look a little better. What we need is confidence in the power of the Gospel itself and the God to whom it draws us.

At the beginning of his correspondence to the Roman church, in Romans 1:16, Paul says something that is surprising in its implications: “I am not ashamed of the gospel.”
Paul the apostle, ashamed of the Gospel? It hardly seems possible! In fact, many preachers and commentators will say that what Paul means is “I’m passionately excited about the Gospel,” with the same understatement with which John Lennon might have been able to say, “I’ve written a song or two.” Could such a man as Paul really have faced the temptation of being ashamed of the Gospel?
But we shouldn’t treat Paul like an angel among men, free from the temptations that assail us. The reason Paul denied feeling ashamed of the Gospel is because shame was a real possibility he faced. And we face it too.
The Bold Apostle, a Timid Man
Paul knew what it was to be fearful. Indeed, he describes his entry into Corinth like this: “I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3).
Paul probably didn’t get up in the morning, look at himself in the mirror, and say, “Corinth, here I come! I’m sure you can’t wait to see me and to hear from me.” No, his attitude might have been something closer to “I don’t know if I can do this.” He may have thought about his retreat from Damascus (Acts 9:23–25), or about his years of silence (Gal. 1:16–17), or his beatings and imprisonments and shipwrecks (2 Cor. 11:21–27). Paul had much to look back on with fear from a human perspective.
Alongside his own background was Paul’s keen awareness of what the Gospel was to outsiders: “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23), a dangerous superstition to be mocked and persecuted rather than a serious idea to consider. Whether to be ashamed of the Gospel was a real question because people really treated it as something shameful.
Yet in God’s eyes, things are different. Far from being shameful, the Gospel, Paul wrote elsewhere, is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).
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Giving as Worship: How and Why the Corinthians Gave to the Church in Jerusalem

How much ought we to give? In proportion with our income, as God moves our hearts. And how ought it be handled? With the utmost integrity. At the heart of giving is the matter of worship. God reigns supreme not only in believers’ heads but also in our hearts and through our hands. Christ’s lordship ought to be evident in both our affections and our practical obedience. If Jesus is Lord of our lives, our possessions and expenses will reflect that reality.

What does it mean to be godly? Far from some remote, disengaged experience, much of the Christian life involves practical obedience. Godliness in Scripture wears working clothes, so to speak. Chapter after chapter, God’s Word confronts men and women with essential issues, impressing on our hearts the urgency of living as those made new in Christ.
One example of such obedience is offered in 1 Corinthians 16, where the apostle Paul connects godliness with giving. In the chapter’s opening verses, his practical instruction regarding the Corinthians’ giving suggests that giving is itself an expression of worship, as essential to the church as preaching, singing, fellowship, prayer, etc. In short, learning to give properly is a central part of learning to worship properly. We have never truly learned to worship the Lord until we’ve learned to give to the Lord.
What Is the “Collection” to which Paul Refers?
In verse 1, Paul speaks of “the collection for the saints.” This wasn’t an isolated initiative in Paul’s ministry; he mentions it at least three other times in the New Testament (Acts 24:17; Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 8:2). Viewed together, these verses reveal that it refers to a collection for the poor in Jerusalem.
Despite its significance as a religious and cultural center, Jerusalem was at this time a poor city. Devout Jews who lived beyond the city’s borders would send money to those within to make sure the economy didn’t disintegrate. And Christians within Jerusalem were poorer yet. Having professed faith in Jesus, they were outsiders among their own, making it that much harder for them to make ends meet financially.
At least in the early years of the Jerusalem church’s founding, the community was self-sufficient. They “had all things in common,” sharing with the poor and needy among them (Acts 2:44). But that practice was only sustainable for so long. Resources would eventually dwindle. When the funds were depleted, the Jerusalem Christians were left in dire straits.
Why the Concern?
Being a Jew himself, we can see why Paul would be concerned with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. But why did he care to involve other congregations in relief efforts?
It seems Paul saw the collection as a tangible expression of unity in the whole body of Christ. Jerusalem believers were largely Jewish; Paul’s missionary journey converts were predominantly gentile. Each group was skeptical of the other. So in calling upon the gentile Christians to help the Jewish Christians, Paul was doing nothing less than reminding them of the Gospel: that God had reconciled Jew and gentile to Himself in His Son, making one new man in place of the two (Eph. 2:15). And that bond was to be expressed in tangible ways, including taking from one’s own resources to meet others’ needs.
The giving to the Jerusalem saints was not only an expression of corporate unity; it also was to be a mark of God’s work among the Corinthians. Indeed, to this day, giving is a key evidence that God is at work in our lives, just as a failure to give should, according to Scripture, lead us to question the very authenticity of our faith (1 John 3:17). In calling on the Corinthians to give, Paul wanted the church’s members to prove their faith genuine.
When was the Collection Taken?
In verse 2, the apostle emphasizes the importance of regular giving, instructing the church to take up a collection “on the first day of every week.” Christian giving, in other words, is to be routine without becoming merely a routine.
The day on which the Corinthians were to give their resources is also significant.
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God in Us: Three Evidences of the Lord’s Presence in Our Lives

In saying “we have come to know and to believe” God’s love for us, John reminds us that our theological convictions are proven and deepened by living experience. Just as a good marriage takes seriously the vows made on the wedding day, each spouse learning to daily rely on the other’s love, so in our relationship with God do we learn to rely on His love. In Christ’s economy, trials and tests come if for no other reason than that we might learn to rely on God’s love for us.

Doubt isn’t unusual for the Christian. If we take a brief inventory of our spiritual pilgrimages, many of us will recall times when we’ve faced uncertainty, wrestling with whether our faith is genuine. Aware of this, John said that he wrote his first epistle “that you may know that you have eternal life” (5:13).
The basis of our certainty isn’t merely that we’re religious, that we joined a Christian club, or that we subscribe to the Ten Commandments. Believers know God personally and experientially. Central to the Christian claim is that God lives in us, and we abide in Him (John 1:12; 2 Cor. 5:17; 1 John 2). Indeed, we may summarize the message of 1 John in a statement: we are God’s children, and our Christian experience is real.
In 1 John 4:13–16, the apostle expounds this claim, providing three evidences of God’s presence in our lives.
We Are Given God’s Spirit
We can say that God lives in us, first, because He gives us His Spirit:
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” (1 John 4:13)
While it’s impossible for us to have only a portion of the Holy Spirit, it is possible for Him to have less than all of us.
A number of things happen to us when we’re born again of God’s Spirit. Not only does God wipe the record clear of our sins and adopt us into His family; He also unites us with Christ in His death and resurrection. United to Christ, we become God’s sons and daughters (Rom. 8:15–16). And, as John reminds us, we receive the Holy Spirit.
The fact that we receive the Holy Spirit at conversion is a biblical reality, though certain groups deny it. Some teach that we receive the Spirit at conversion, but not in full; they assert that He’s given progressively in installments, so to speak. But the Bible teaches the very reverse of that. When we receive the Spirit, we receive all of Him. It isn’t possible for us to have Him at 60 percent, for He’s an indivisible unity. The Spirit is one divine person.
Now, while it’s impossible for us to have only a portion of the Holy Spirit, it is possible for Him to have less than all of us. That’s why Paul warns against Christians grieving God’s Spirit (Eph 4:30). Instead, we are to “be filled with the Spirit” (5:18). By this Paul means not that we receive more of what we don’t already possess but that we experience a constant renewing and directing of God’s Spirit in our lives. And the degree to which the Spirit has fullness in our lives is the degree to which we may experience assurance that God lives in us.
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How to Respond When Your Faith Is Questioned

Our responses matter, but only Jesus saves people. We all need to recall and rest in these familiar words from Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” Love, prayerfulness, humility, and other Christlike traits matter infinitely more than appearing to know all the answers.

Has the prospect of sharing your faith ever intimidated or scared you? I think if we’re honest with ourselves, all who have tried to be faithful in the realm of evangelism would answer with a resounding “Yes!”
One of the reasons we may be fearful of engaging others in conversation about the Gospel is that we imagine we need to have all the answers to the questions people will raise. It is, of course, good to be well-prepared, but we should always remember that only God opens blind eyes and softens hard hearts (Ps. 146:8; Eph. 1:17–18). When men and women are born again, it is by the mysterious work of the Spirit of God (Ezek. 36:26–27; Rom. 8:1–11). Without that, all our arguments are quite useless.
However, as Gresham Machen observed, “Because argument is insufficient, it does not follow that it is unnecessary. What the Holy Spirit does in the new birth is not to make a make a man a Christian regardless of the evidence, but on the contrary to clear away the mists from his eyes and enable him to attend to the evidence.”1
As you prayerfully consider your own evangelistic efforts, I hope this quick list of practical—and, I believe, biblical—tips for dealing with objections and questions while sharing your faith will be a help. Perhaps it will prompt you to be bolder and more loving in your next conversation with a neighbor, a loved one, or even a stranger.
1) Be patient.
In seeking to deal with difficult questions, it is important that we avoid launching into somebody’s face, attempting to answer before they’ve even fully asked the question. If we’re going to be sensitive, loving, and understanding, we must have the patience and courtesy to allow someone to complete a thought or question (Prov. 14:29; 1 Cor. 13:4).
2) Don’t drown people in details.
It is more than possible to smother an inquirer with a vast array of information, drowning him or her with all we’ve managed to learn.
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The Basics of Expository Preaching

In dealing with the text of Scripture, Lucas offers a lesson for preaching: hold the line. “The line” in his metaphor refers to Scripture’s plain instruction. He urges us against deviating above the line, saying more than the Bible says, and below the line, saying less than the Bible says. Below the line, we might imagine such errors as liberalism, partisan neo-evangelicalism, church-growth pragmaticism, etc.; above it, fanaticism, pietism, emotional Pentecostalism, etc. Against all of these deviations, our expository emphasis should be on the plain teaching of God’s Word.

When we consider examples of preaching in the Bible, many of us go immediately to the New Testament—and we’re not wrong to do so. It may surprise us, though, to discover that the Old Testament is replete with early examples of expository preaching. Consider this one from Nehemiah:
All the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. … They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (Nehemiah 8:1–4, 8)
Ezra’s preaching was far from dull, for we’re told that “the ears of all the people were attentive” to him as he both read God’s Word and “gave the sense.” He proclaimed divine truth with a sense of liveliness that any preacher would do well to imitate. John Calvin, remarking on what happens in the act of preaching, wrote,
It is certain that if we come to church we shall not hear only a mortal man speaking but we shall feel (even by his secret power) that God is speaking to our souls, that he is the teacher …. He so touches us that the human voice enters into us and so profits us that we are refreshed and nourished by it ….
… [God] calls us to him as if he had his mouth open and we saw him there in person.1
Does the average church member have this picture in mind when he or she comes to hear the Word preached? Those under Ezra’s preaching certainly did. And if we wish for this to be true in our churches, we must pray zealously that God would break into our congregations, revealing His strength by His Word to our people. Getting to this place will require the hard work of diligent exposition.
So, what are the basics of expository preaching? To answer this question, we’ll examine its definition, dangers, and lessons through a biblical lens.
A Definition of Expository Preaching
Simply put, expository preaching is preaching that begins with the Bible. This doesn’t mean that every sermon must begin with the phrase “Please turn in your Bibles to such and such a passage,” although that is a good practice. Rather, beginning with the text means that regardless of the introductory content—whether a current event, a song lyric, or a pastoral issue—it’s immediately clear to our people that the biblical text has established the sermon’s agenda. The expositor allows Scripture to frame every part of his sermon. For this reason John Stott contended that “all true Christian preaching is expository preaching.”2
Exposition is more of a method than a style of preaching. Topical, devotional, evangelistic, textual, apologetic—these are all preaching styles. But as a method, exposition can be applied to a wide variety of sermon types as the occasion demands. What’s important in exposition is that the preacher and his people are anchored to the Bible, allowing the text to establish both the sermon’s framework and content.
Looking at it from another angle, we might ask of ourselves: “Does this sermon answer the ‘So what?’ question?” Exegesis answers the “What?” of the biblical text, exposition the “So what?” As such, it’s possible to preach exegetically without preaching expositionally. True exposition bridges the gap between, for example, Paul’s first-century letter to the Corinthians and the twenty-first century Christian. It always fuses the horizons of the world in which the individual lives with the world out of which the Scriptures come.
The Dangers of Expository Preaching
Given the case for exposition made above, considering its dangers may seem odd. But even good things can pose dangers if handled improperly. As preachers, we must guard against two assumptions: on the one hand, that our message is irrelevant; or, on the other hand, that our message is immediately relevant.
With the first assumption in mind, we should realize that we will almost always be preaching to at least a handful of skeptics. As we preach, they’ll think, This is irrelevant! This is nothing but a religious man giving a religious talk. Therefore, we must strive not only to offer good exegesis (helping the listener understand the text’s meaning) but also to establish its relevance in our hearer’s world.
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What Could Be Greater than Signs and Wonders?

The most astounding miracles will not bring life to dead hearts. Even the resurrection, on its own, is not enough to create faith. Great works of God may encourage us and spur us on, but they will not save us. We need the greatest work of all, though it is the least spectacular—that is, the Holy Spirit of God bringing about a new birth. The confidence of heaven is in the Word of God. Whatever else may happen or not, all the knowledge that is required for men and women to come to faith in Jesus Christ has been revealed for us in the Book.

In John 20:30–31, the Gospel’s author explains that his account of Jesus’ life and works was “written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” In saying this, John makes it clear that the wondrous signs that he recorded are there to elicit belief from his readers (or hearers). Jesus’ miracles authenticate His claim to be the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
As we think about the place of signs and wonders in the church today, it’s important to recognize that it is the Holy Spirit working through God’s revealed Word that creates faith in human hearts. Miracles are simply not meant to do what the Word of God alone does—and we cannot expect them to.
There is an inherent danger in looking to signs and wonders to authenticate our faith. Rather than pointing away from themselves and to the Savior, miracles can become ends in themselves, giving us a false sense of salvation through temporary benefits. In the pages of John’s Gospel, we see religious crowds fall into this very error on multiple occasions. But when we examine the Scriptures, we’re reminded that even the effects of miracles pale in comparison to the effects of the faithful proclamation of God’s Word.
“What Sign Will You Perform?”
Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel records a moment in Jesus’ ministry when the crowds’ desire for miracles came to a head. Earlier in the chapter, we read of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand (vv. 1–15) and walking on water (vv. 15–21). The next day, the crowd follows in His wake across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum, where they eventually confront Him with a telling question:
They said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (John 6:30–31)
In 1 Corinthians 1:22, Paul (himself a Jew) writes that “Jews demand signs.” The evidence of that is here in John’s Gospel. In John 2:18, a Jewish crowd had asked the same question. When Jesus cleared the temple, they demanded, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” In both chapter 2 and chapter 6, the Jews are essentially saying, “You’re stepping on toes here. If you’re going to act this way and if you’re going to make these big claims, then let’s have your credentials.”
The question in chapter 6 is all the more incredible in light of the signs that Jesus had already performed and that they had already seen. Jesus had changed the water into wine. He had healed the official’s son. A man crippled for thirty-eight years was running all around Jerusalem thanks to Him. And, of course, He had fed the five thousand. The very Jews asking for a miracle now had been there, and they knew that He had somehow crossed the lake ahead of them without a boat.
In fact, only a few verses earlier, in John 6:26, Jesus says to them that the reason they had come to Him was “not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” In other words, they had seen the miracle of multiplied loaves, but they had little interest in what it signified. As one commentator puts it, “Instead of seeing in the bread the sign, they had seen in the sign only the bread.”1 Far from helping them to believe, the miracle had merely revealed that their understanding was darkened by worldly thinking.
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Can I Lose My Salvation? (The Doctrine of Perseverance)

It’s Christ’s Word that warns, guides, teaches, and encourages us as we persevere in faith. We may think of Peter, who, after having fallen away for a time, was restored to Christ on the strength of His truth spoken to him (John 21:15–17). If we wish to endure, it’s imperative we become children of the Word. And so, we look to Christ. We listen to His Word. And finally, we situate ourselves among His people.

Few things burden the Christian more than when a person who once professed Christ wanders from the Gospel. If you take inventory of your own experience, you may come up with a list of names of those who once mentored you in the faith, led your church in worship on Sundays, or even taught the Bible to you yet ultimately (it seems) left the faith. Tragically, the world is filled with people who once apparently walked the path of obedience but didn’t continue on it.
This phenomenon isn’t new. The author of Hebrews warned those to whom he wrote against matters like drifting, rebellion, and disobedience (Heb. 2:1; 3:16). He even at times presented these warnings in conditional terms: “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Heb. 3:14).
When it comes to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, we must recognize that these warnings in Hebrews are real warnings, directed toward Christians. There’s no sense in which they are to be ignored on the basis of self-proclaimed security. Instead, as Sinclair Ferguson notes, “the New Testament warns us by precept and example that some professing Christians may not persevere in their profession of Christ to the end of their lives.”1
We must be careful that we don’t grow careless or prideful when it comes to persevering in the faith. In fact, the doctrine should produce in us a careful urgency to heed the biblical warnings concerning apostasy. When we come to the Scriptures, we discover that the perseverance of God’s people in their salvation is a truth that is biblical, practical, and Christ-centered.
A Biblical Doctrine
What do we mean when we talk about the doctrine of perseverance? Louis Berkhof gives a helpful definition, describing it as “that continuous operation of the Holy Spirit in the believer, by which the work of divine grace that is begun in the heart, is continued and brought to completion.”2 Strictly speaking, perseverance has more to do with God’s work than with our own. It’s because God perseveres in His love for us that we’re able to continue in our love for Him. A more apt name for this doctrine, in fact, might be the preservation of the saints. God preserves, keeps, and guards His people.
With the definition in mind, we can locate the doctrine all throughout Scripture. Indeed, the Bible emphasizes the absolute certainty of the believer’s preservation. The opening verses of 1 Peter are among the clearest on the matter:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3–5)
Three truths concerning God’s preservation of the saints arise from this passage.
First, God “has caused us to be born again” (v. 3).
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“How Long, O Lord?”

Habakkuk’s questions about God’s presence in the face of evil are answered not ultimately within his writing or his time but beyond it. If we wish to get the solutions for the fundamental issues raised in the book—the questions of God’s dealing with injustice, His providing necessary judgment while remaining true to His character, His delight in showing mercy, etc.—then we must look beyond Habakkuk to Jesus Christ. 

Although the prophet Habakkuk lived more than 2,500 years ago, the book that bears his name begins with an issue that is relevant in every age and in every culture: God’s apparent inactivity in the face of injustice, violence, and destruction.
In the book’s opening verses, we’re introduced to a faith-filled yet weary prophet:
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,and you will not hear?Or cry to you “Violence!”and you will not save? (v. 2)
Habakkuk’s been praying but has become increasingly disheartened. His complaints have to do with God’s timing and tolerance. Familiar with God’s word to Israel in Deuteronomy 28, in which God promised that judgment would follow His people’s covenant disobedience, Habakkuk appeals to God to make good on His promise. Grieved by God’s apparent lenience toward Israel’s wickedness (vv. 3–4), the prophet essentially asks, “How long until You act?”
We can understand why Habakkuk was grieved. He lived during a period of great spiritual darkness in Israel and is believed to have been a younger contemporary of Jeremiah and a subject under king Jehoiakim. We read some about Jehoiakim’s royal malpractice in Jeremiah 22:
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,and his upper rooms by injustice,who makes his neighbor serve him for nothingand does not give him his wages……You have eyes and heartonly for your dishonest gain,for shedding innocent blood,and for practicing oppression and violence. (vv. 13, 17)
The context that Jeremiah’s prophecy lends to Habakkuk is staggering, bringing a greater depth of meaning to his complaint in verse 4: “The law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth.” As understandable as his complaint was, though, Habakkuk still needed to learn to trust God’s work in the world—especially since he hadn’t begun to understand all that was taking place.
God’s people today must also learn this vital skill—and the Spirit-inspired prophecy of Habakkuk is a qualified instructor for us. Habakkuk reminds us that God works in the world, regardless of time and place. We can discern this work through three topics connected to chapter 1: the revelation that God discloses, the answer that Habakkuk gives, and the fulfillment that Jesus provides.
God’s Revelation
In 1:6, God answers Habakkuk’s complaint in an unbelievable manner: “Behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans.” The Chaldeans—or “the Babylonians” in some translations—were a notorious geopolitical power in their day. They had sacked Assur in 614 BC and Nineveh in 612, and in 605 they had besieged Egypt in the historic Battle of Carchemish. And now God discloses that Babylon is heading toward Judah.
Though this news was doubtlessly devastating, it’s remarkable to pause and reflect on the fact that all of these historical events unfolded under God’s sovereign control. As powerful as the Babylonians were, they were merely instruments in God’s hand. He would raise Babylon up, and He would hold them accountable for their wickedness (1:6; 2:12). Even in reading of such a severe judgment we can take comfort, for the events of our day are no less under God’s control than they were in Habakkuk’s. God doesn’t watch and wait for history to progress. Instead, He’s actively involved in the affairs of the world and of every individual (Matt. 10:29–30).
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